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The psychological construction of mental states: How the mind is realized by distributed networks in the brain

Final Report Summary - MAPPING THE MIND (The psychological construction of mental states: How the mind is realized by distributed networks in the brain.)

Psychology studies the mind by investigating the basic processes that underlie subjective experiences, such as fear, disgust, love, curiosity, concentration, memory, planning, thinking and feeling. These mental events are experienced with different subjective qualities. Thinking is experienced differently as being angry, and being angry is experienced differently as remembering an event. The research project “Mapping the Mind” takes a counterintuitive stance on how the brain creates the mind by hypothesizing that mental states are constructed out of a set of basic psychological processes. This hypothesis is based on a theoretical framework called psychological constructionism that aims to understand mental events by focusing on the interaction of large-scale distributed brain networks that support these basic psychological processes (Barrett, 2009; Barrett & Satpute, 2013; Lindquist & Barrett, 2012). These basic psychological processes include 1) representing basic sensory information from the world; 2) representing basic interoceptive sensations from the body and 3) making meaning of these internal and external sensations by activating stored representations of prior experience (i.e. what people “know” about mental states) (Oosterwijk, Touroutoglou, & Lindquist, in press; Lindquist & Barrett, 2012).

The research project “Mapping the Mind” has as its primary objective to test a constructionist view on the mind. With several functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments the project investigates how the brain realizes different mental states. More specifically, the project test the hypothesis that specific mental content (e.g. experiencing fear, disgust or fascination, thinking about your plans, focusing on a bodily sensation or understanding the mental state of someone else) each involve a relatively different combination of the same set of distributed brain networks. Furthermore, the project also investigates how we understand the mental states of others, and to what extent the neural resources for mental state experience and mental state understanding are shared.

In the first study, we asked people to generate three kinds of mental states (emotions, body feelings and thoughts) in response to descriptions of negative situations (Oosterwijk, Lindquist, Anderson, Dauthoff, Moriguchi, & Barrett, 2012). During this task we measured activity within large-scale distributed brain networks. Consistent with a constructionist framework of the mind, we found evidence that different network profiles were associated with each mental state category. For example, the network that supports the representation of bodily sensations (i.e. the salience network) demonstrated the strongest activity during emotions and bodily feelings. Importantly, however, this network also contributed to thoughts which supports our hypothesis that different mental states share distributed networks in the brain.

In a second study, we investigated how the brain supports different conceptualizations of negative, highly arousing images (e.g. an image of a war conflict or an operation on a finger) (Oosterwijk, Lindquist & Barrett, in preparation). For example, a negative image can evoke typical states, such as fear or disgust, or the more a-typical state of fascination. According to a constructionist view on the mind, this variability occurs because negative information may be conceptualized differently depending on the knowledge present during processing (Barrett, 2006; Barrett, 2012). With a novel and innovative method, we investigated the neural systems involved in typical and a-typical conceptualizations of negative images. As predicted, we found that important nodes within the network that supports conceptualization (i.e. the default network) engaged most strongly when people conceptualized their experience in an atypical way (e.g. as fascination). Together, these findings provide important insights into the neural systems that support the construction of typical and a-typical discrete emotional experiences.

In a third study, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, we focused on how people understand mental states in other people (Oosterwijk, Mackey, Winkielman, Wilson-Mendenhall, & Paulus, submitted). Subjects were presented with sentences describing emotional (e.g. fear, joy) and non-emotional (e.g. hunger, thinking) mental states with internal focus (i.e. focusing on bodily sensations and introspection) or external focus (i.e. focusing on expression and action). We demonstrated that understanding these sentences involved different patterns of activation across neural systems associated with action (i.e. inferior frontal gyrus) and the generation of internal states (i.e. ventromedial prefrontal cortex). These findings highlight that mental state understanding is constructed in the same distributed neural networks that also produce subjective mental experience in the individual (Oosterwijk & Barrett, in press).

In a fourth study, performed during the return phase at the University of Amsterdam, we investigated where in the brain we can find neural overlap when people experience emotion in the self and when people understand emotion in others. According to theories of embodied cognition, understanding emotions in others is grounded in the same neural systems that also produce actions, bodily sensations, feelings, emotions and thoughts in the individual (Barsalou, 1999; 2009; Gallese & Lakoff, 2005; Gallese, Keysers & Rizzolatti, 2004; see also Oosterwijk & Barrett, in press). These theoretical views are consistent with a constructionist view on the mind that argues that mental events, including mental events in which we focus on the experience of others, are supported by the interaction of large-scale distributed brain networks. The main aim of this fMRI experiment was to experimentally test the overlap between imagining emotional actions, sensations and situations, and understanding other people’s emotional actions, sensations and situations.

The research performed in the Marie Curie project “Mapping the Mind” yields important evidence that supports a constructionist account of mind-brain correspondence (Oosterwijk, Touroutoglou, & Lindquist, in press). These findings shape our understanding of how the brain creates the mind, by suggesting that psychological processes such as emotional experience, thinking, social cognition and language share neural resources. With this, the “Mapping the Mind” project contributes to the effort to reveal a set of neural “common denominators” that link psychological domains that appear very different on the surface.

Contact details: Suzanne Oosterwijk (